By Matt Horan

So, in a previous blog I just finished saying that the United Methodist Church needs to stay together.  In fairness, I probably owe a little more in terms of how we might do it.  In a season filled with people offering grandiose yet vague solutions, may I not be counted among them.

We would be wise to learn from the principles that have given some success to the Emergent Church and non-denominational church movements over the last 15 years or so, without losing the Wesleyan distinctives that have sustained us since the days of the “Holy Club.”

(A great read on the philosphy behind the Emergent Church movement is Tim Keel’s Intuitive Leadership, or George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism.)

Lead With Your Strengths

  1. Grace.  The Wesleyan understanding of the grace of God that meets us where we are in our journey and urges us forward must not be lost.  By God’s prevenient grace, we are awakened to our sin, and awakened to what is possible if we would put our old life behind and choose to live on the pathway as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  By God’s justifying grace, we are baptized with Christ into his death and resurrection.  Thus we are a new creation–the old has gone and the new has come.  By God’s sanctifying grace, we are shown the path ahead.  We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the next steps that would lead us on to perfection–emptying ourselves of self-absorption and filling ourselves with the capacity to fully love God and love others.  This is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
  2. Spiritual Formation.  Anyone who has read his sermons or journals knows that Wesley did not spare words in his sermons or his writing.  He was not afraid to call someone out and disagree with them on theological, exegetical, ecclesiological, or any other bigseminarywordological grounds.  But in the end, he saw the highest value of the Scriptures was found in spiritual formation.  While the Bible is used today to test and see what kind of Christian we are, used to explain the science of the origin of the universe, and used as a black and white rulebook–the Wesleyan way is to not let these ever undermine their primary purpose: helping us grow as disciples of Jesus Christ who are going on to perfection.  Perhaps Lot’s wife was really turned into a pillar of salt, and perhaps not.  Either way, we can learn the lesson that we are better served focusing on what is ahead of us than remaining distracted by the past that we’re supposed to leave behind.
  3. Holiness.  Wesley famously announced that there is no holiness apart from social holiness.  As denominations and religious systems around the world fall into the trap of choosing one over the other, the Wesleyan way is to hold both as equal parts of the whole.  As one grows in personal holiness through the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Scripture reflection, presence in worship and small group community, generous giving, serving according to our spiritual gifts, and inviting others to hear the good news about Jesus Christ; we should expect that fruit will be borne in the world around us causing social holiness: the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.  Conversely, as we serve in the world to care for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the outcast; we should also expect this service to bear fruit in our lives to help us grow in personal holiness.  We are careful to hold up both as equals, and must continue.
  4. Quadrilateral Discernment.  As Wesleyans interpret and respond to the events in our lives, our primary source is the Scriptures as contained in the Old and New Testaments.  Careful and thoughtful scholarship in Biblical studies will give us a better understanding of God’s revelation to humankind, and of humankind’s appropriate response.  Then, coming alongside our exploration of the Scriptures are reason, tradition, and experience: by consulting the powers of reasoning we’ve been given, by tracing the unfolding historic Christianity that we’ve inherited, and by testing theories with our own experiences and the experiences of others.  The practice of “sola scriptura” sounds good in theory, but it is only possible in theory.  We all bring diverse experiences into the Scriptures, and hear them through our own unique lens.  Thus employing this four-part discernment process in community with other believers will help us explore together what God is revealing, where the Spirit is leading, and what it will look like for us to follow.

Get Local

There is no chance that we’re all going to agree on everything.  In fact, there may be not much chance of all of us ever agreeing on anything.  With this in mind, we can learn much from the Emergent Church movement.  Long associated with darkness and candles that looked to traditional worshipers like a poetry reading in a haunted house, the Emergent Church movement was never about worship style.  It started as a belief that Christian community is inherently local–“emerging” not by top down edict from a centralized denominational office somewhere, but from the people themselves that make up the local church.

Now, running a denomination like that takes serious faith.  It takes faith that the local church is capable of the Biblical scholarship necessary to hear the revelation of God and make an appropriate response.  It takes faith that God might move among the people in the local church more because of who God is than who is represented on the General Board of (insert name of general board or agency here).  The challenge is that to make such a shift in the United Methodist Church would require action from General Conference, which is largely attended by people who really hope that their involvement and leadership within the denominational bureaucratic hierarchy will make local churches more likely to hear the revelation of God and make an appropriate response.  It would take a vote by the General Conference, whose members ran for election to this place of influence, to say, “The local church is better off without my influence.”  Serious faith indeed.

Unfortunately for those who aspired to the influence mountaintop, this may be the only way: a confederation of local churches who remain united in promoting the strengths listed above, who cooperate to bring together the resources necessary to relieve the suffering in this world that we’re called to relieve and to maximize bargaining and purchasing power (operating seminaries, ordination process, purchasing health insurance, etc.), but giving some freedom to local churches to decide who they are within those strengths, and to live out that identity accordingly.

There are plenty of ways that local churches could live this out, but let’s not waste time and just get to the presenting issue.  What if local churches decided for themselves which weddings they would perform?  They already do that anyway.  Will we do a wedding between a Methodist and a person who is not a Christian?  Will we take time away from our congregation’s needs to do a wedding or a funeral for someone who is not a member of our church but just thinks our sanctuary is pretty?

There are challenges.  Bishops and District Superintendents would have some added responsibility to make sure that clergy appointments are the right fit based on the practices that emerge from each local church.  If a church’s charge conference nominates a homosexual person for candidacy to be licensed, commissioned, and/or ordained as clergy, the Bishop and District Superintendents would need to be clear about where those clergy could be appointed.  The clergy candidates would also have to be mindful that we no longer live in a guaranteed appointment system, and we might have more prospective pastors than we do churches that are open to gay clergy, and they would need to be willing accept a “transitional appointment” until an opening came up if necessary.  It’s not a perfect solution, but it would give us the flexibility to avoid having homosexuality becoming the painful ecclesiastical struggle it tends to be every four years.

In the end, this would mean admitting that we’re not sure what to do on this issue.  There are faithful people who love Jesus on both sides.  There are faithful people on one side who switch to the other every day.  I propose that we give each local church the freedom to explore it’s own way forward together, trusting that the strengths that hold us together will also serve us well even if we’re in a season spent, in some ways, a few miles apart.

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Comments
  1. It is a lovely plan; but it has a big flaw. I will not keep the name United Methodist if the UMC officially allows its clergy to officiate at weddings of lesbians and gay couples, or if our church agrees to ordain practicing homosexual clergy. I am sure I am not the only person who feels this way. I do not want to be part of an organization that officially sanctions something the Bible says is perverted and sinful.

    This is a very personal issue for me. I am a single, celibate heterosexual clergywoman. I believe that there have been some people in the churches I have served who suspected that I might not be heterosexual, or that I am abnormal somehow. The truth is that I value holiness. I have felt BLESSED to be single many times when things became difficult in the congregations I have served. I would not want my family–people I love–to deal with the meanness that happens too often when churches are in decline or struggling. As a single person, I was able to move to places a family might not want to serve, and I was free to take a year long sabbatical to travel the world—that would not have been possible if I were married. My view of marriage is both Pauline and Wesleyan. I may marry some day; but until then I will hold to my commitment to remain celibate in singleness.

    If your plan succeeds. I will leave–with deep sorrow and a broken heart. I don’t want to be connected to such a group. I doubt I will be missed if I leave. But the truth is that many others will also leave.

  2. An additional note. I do like the concept of working to develop some kind of Christian community in my neighborhood. I would expect such a group to include my Catholic next door neighbor and my Pentecostal neighbor across the street. I would like to limit it to people within WALKING distance of my house, and I don’t want ANY denomination to be involved in authorizing or guiding it. I haven’t figured out how I will deal with my desire and need for holy communion; but since I am ordained, I perhaps I can take authority and decide to serve it.

    Perhaps the UMC should make a decision to sell our buildings and property and really give the money to the poor. Perhaps that would be a positive sign of the kingdom.

  3. Matt, I believe that Jesus and the scripture are INHERENTLY counter-cultural. When the faith community adopts the cultural values of the mainstream, scripture provides a corrective. This approach challenges the notion that the community has the responsibility and the authority to choose which scriptures to heed. (An hermeneutic endorsed by our Book of Discipline.) Generally church bodies seem to be more interested in finding scriptures that will support church growth and maintenance of the church institution, than scriptures that are challenging or critical of the church or contemporary culture.

    My own hermeneutic has been shaped by liberation theologies. I try to listen to scripture from the perspective of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. It seems to me that the One who came to preach good news to the poor and set the captives free uses a similar hermeneutic.

    Such a perspective is disruptive, prophetic and may lead to the cross. It is probably the reason I am RETIRED from pastoral ministry. Following Jesus is my passion and my call. It seems odd to me that it is leading me AWAY from the church; and I struggle deeply with this. I haven’t been able to cut-loose yet.

    • Matt Horan says:

      Not sure you answered the question.

    • My answer may sound a bit arrogant, but I’d have to say that I rely on insights received in prayerful meditation on scripture. I also weigh these insights within the context of the context of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. I look at things like, how does this text relate to OTHER texts, Christian tradition, and scholarship? I EXPECT scripture to shape my decisions and actions rather than the other way around. I want to be FORMED by scripture rather than FORM scripture. You may notice that I left out “reason”. I appreciate reason in many contexts, but I think I value irrationality (radical discipleship) more.

      I have been seriously studying the Bible since my conversion experience on October 15, 1975. I still learn new things as I read, study, and meditate upon it. I am NOT a Bible scholar, (I don’t read Greek and no longer read Hebrew). But I think I have a better understanding of scripture than the average church member, and many preachers. I am willing to engage in dialogue with others and to learn from others; but there comes a point where I say, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” (Thanks to Martian Luther for this awesome quote.)

  4. […] other day someone commented on my blog about amicable separation of the United Methodist Church.  He talked about the difference between liberals and evangelicals, […]

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